What is this process of witnessing, or bearing witness, that is more than just seeing?
When we bear witness to a situation, we become each and every aspect of that situation. When we bear witness to Auschwitz, at that moment there is no separation between us and the people who died. There is also no separation between us and the people who killed. We ourselves, as individuals, with our identities and ego structure, disappear, and we become the terrified people getting off the trains, the indifferent or brutal guards, the snarling dogs, the doctor who points right or left, the smoke and ash belching from the chimneys. When we bear witness to Auschwitz, we are nothing but all the elements of Auschwitz.
It is not an act of will, it is an act of letting go. What we let go of is the concept of the person we think we are. It's why we start from unknowing. Only then can we become all the voices of the universe -- those that suffer, those that inflict suffering, and those that stand idly by. For we are all these people. We are the universe.
After five days of sitting at the Selection Site and chanting names, many could see themselves as those who had gone to the gas chambers, including those who had no direct family connection to Auschwitz. Mothers thought of themselves bringing their own children into the death chambers. Men saw their own bodies going up in smoke in the crematoria. It was harder to see oneself as a guard who'd herded people to their death. One of the retreat participants was a Vietnam veteran. He said that he could see himself as one of the guards on top of the guardposts, aiming his gun at the people below. But not many people could see themselves that way.
The famous prayer about oneness, the Sh'ma Yisrael, begins with Listen: Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Not only does oneness begin with listening, listening begins with oneness. And Zen Peacemaker Order's Buddhist service begins similarly: Attention! Attention! Raising the Mind of Compassion, the Supreme Meal is offered to all the hungry spirits throughout space and time, filling the smallest particle to the largest space.
Listen! Attention! Bear witness!
It can't happen if you want to stay away from pain and suffering. It probably won't happen if, like most people, you go to Auschwitz, look over the exhibits, and return to the buses for a quick getaway. When you come to Auschwitz, stay a while, and begin to listen to all the voices of that terrible universe -- the voices that are none other than you -- then something happens.
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